Archive for the ‘dGenerate Events’ Category

Review of Pema Tseden’s Tharlo

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016
Courtesy of Icarus Films

Courtesy of Icarus Films

by Maya Rudolph 
This review contains spoilers.

Tharlo, Pema Tsenden’s noir-inflected romance, is a story of identity, a journey of the self in black and white. A Tibetan shepherd known by his eponymous “Ponytail” travels from his rural home to a small city in Qinghai Province in reluctant pursuit of an ID card—the documentation all Chinese rely on to designate their residency. His never-used given name is Tharlo and, though he’s easygoing, Ponytail isn’t convinced that he needs an ID. “I know who I am,” he says plainly. “Isn’t that enough?” But it’s not enough—at least not for Tseden to set the stakes for Tharlo’s journey into the miasma of the city. A conversation of the heaviness of life and death plays out in the bureau office of Chief Dorjie, a friendly Tibetan cop who compliments Tharlo’s formidable recitation of Mao’s “Serve the People.” As the men reflect on the line “To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai,” Tharlo tells Dorjie he’s confident that his own way of serving the people, tending his flock of sheep, will bring Mount Tai-volume gravity to his death when the time comes.

In the city, Ponytail tries on his urban identity as Tharlo. Accompanied by an orphaned lamb he carries in a satchel, Tharlo waits his turn in a photography studio and watches a couple pose, first against a painted backdrop of Tian’anmen Square and then a boxy, distorted representation of the New York City skyline. Tseden presents the discrete, static spaces of an urban town through reflections and cropped frames that betray Tharlo’s discomfort with the unfamiliar customs of city life. Played with a plainspoken good humor by Tibetan comedian Shide Nyima, Tharlo is a good sport of ineffable age who seems at home in himself, if not in his surroundings.

But when it’s Tharlo’s turn to have his likeness captured, the photographer finds his hygiene wanting, and so he gamely heads across the street to have his hair washed and tidied. It’s in a dingy barbershop that Tharlo meets a very pretty hairdresser whose direct, modern style makes a deep impression. She flirts with him, massages his head with shampoo, and compliments his “cute ponytail.” If naive, mild-mannered Tharlo is a classic noir archetype of the hapless stranger, the hairdresser’s sideways smile marks her as Tibetan cinema’s foremost femme fatale. She invites Tharlo to join her for a night of karaoke, where Tharlo stumbles through the ultimate urban paradox of good and evil: a first date. The private karaoke room, all laser disco lights and tinny pop songs, is claustrophobic and disorienting for Tharlo. They spend the night in the barbershop and it’s only the next morning when we see her body lean in for a goodbye kiss, or to whisper something, that we learn her name: Yangtso.

Tharlo returns home to his isolated mountain home and Tseden’s camera opens up to the grand sweep of a lonely figure beneath staggering peaks and endless sky. Tharlo tells Dorjie that he thinks he’s met a bad person in the city, but it’s clear that Yangtso weighs on his thoughts even while the familiar evils of the steppe make trouble for Tharlo and his sheep. At home, he drinks and smokes himself to uncontrollable coughing fits, sets off fireworks to break the stillness of the night, and teaches himself to sing folk love songs. Eventually, he capitulates to temptation, or curiosity, and returns to the city with a stack of cash. Tharlo and Yangtso decide to run away together—to really see Beijing, or even New York City—but not before Yangtso divests Ponytail of his namesake in favor of a more anonymous look.

While assured black and white photography and the contrasting scale of urban and rural geography create a compelling visual language, the truth of Pema Tseden’s narrative is heard rather than seen. The sleepy world of the steppe, punctuated by bleating sheep, is delineated from the city’s static of cheesy music and diesel engines by the puttering of Tharlo’s motorbike, the sounds fully realized even at long distance. In the city, where every image is reframed and refracted in windows and the literal smoke and mirrors of the barbershop, only sound emerges trustworthy. Tharlo’s identity is made and unmade in exterior sounds: the cry of his little orphan sheep; his hacking cough; the ugly sonic bleed of the karaoke bar; the loud hum of electric razor Yangtso uses to shave Tharlo’s head. When Tharlo wakes up the morning after his haircut to find Yangtso and his fortune gone, he barely appears in our mirrored view of the empty barbershop. It is the sound of him opening and closing drawers, a shuffling of objects grown increasingly frantic that confirms the betrayal.

Returning to Chief Dorjie’s bureau, a traumatized Tharlo learns that his ID card has finally arrived. His head shaved by the woman who destroyed him, our hero finds that his identity is null—he no longer resembles the man on the ID card. He’ll have to go back to the photographer and start all over again. “I’m afraid now my death will be lighter than a feather,” Tharlo despairs, now a stranger to himself.


Tharlo is a story of crushing themes and bald questions of identity, a cautionary tale with an iron spine of rightness gone wrong, but Tseden manages to guide this adaptation of his own novella with an even hand. Heaviness and lightness are juggled in the measured pacing, the story of a man’s undoing told simply, but not without irony or an appreciation for the exquisite awkwardness of courtship. In his initial appraisal of Tharlo as a good man, Chief Dorjie claims to possess a policeman’s intuition for assessing a person as good or bad on sight, a ludicrous claim that nonetheless tortures Tharlo as his own image changes, molded by the perceptions of others and reduced to ambiguity.

Certainly, questions of Tibetan identity in a Chinese infrastructure cement the story’s context, but the influence of politics and modernity is inexorable from Tharlo and Yangtso’s graceless love story. Brazen Yangtso is an impalpable figure and Tharlo’s attraction to and repulsion by her are the least of her contradictions. She is a Tibetan woman liberated from (or deprived of) her traditional long braids, a Tibetan women who smokes and sings pop songs and flirts easily, a modern Tibetan woman in a Western Chinese city. While the ID card is an obvious metaphor for Tharlo’s fractured identity, the truth of his crisis is manifest in Yangtso. As a Tibetan woman, her physical being is familiar, but Tharlo comes undone when her behavior takes a wrecking ball to his binary convictions, his sense of the world and ability to know himself.

In the moments after Yangtso shaves Tharlo’s head, she sits beside him in a barber chair, each captured in separate, adjacent mirrors. Her posture is casual, sizing up this man. Tharlo’s troubles may originate in the dangerous act of classification—making physical ones identity in the form of a state-issued card—but romance is another kind of identity crisis. Infatuation is a black hole. And love can dismantle a person, no matter who they think they are.

Tonight: Cui Zi’en Presents Queer China at Cornell

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Details at Cornell University East Asia Program

The Department of Performing and Media Arts, The East Asia Program, The LGBT Studies Program and The LGBT Resource Center are delighted to present Cui Zi’en, a Chinese queer rights activist/independent film maker to the Cornell Community. As a pioneering queer rights activist and independent film maker, Cui Zi’en will meet the Cornell community on October 26th. There will be a screening and Q&A session of his latest work, Queer China, a documentary on the history of homosexuality and queer activism in 20th century China from 4:30 to 7:00 at the Film Forum at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. For a short bio and list of works by Cui, please see below:

Cui Zi En, also Cui Zi’en, is a film director, film scholar, screenwriter, novelist and an outspoken gay activist based in Beijing. He graduated from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences with an MA in literature and now is an associate professor at the Film Research Institute of the Beijing Film Academy. Cui Zi’en is one of the avant-garde DV makers in Chinese underground film, He has published nine novels in China and Hong Kong, one of which, Uncle’s Past, won the 2001 Radio Literature Award in Germany. He is also the author of books on criticism and theory, as well as a columnist for magazines. His independent movies include Men and Women (1999), Enter the Clowns (2002), The Old Testament (2002), My Fair Son (2005), Withered in a Blooming Season (2005), and Queer China, “Comrade” China (2008).

CinemaTalk: Interview with Zhu Rikun, Curator of Jacob Burns “Hidden China” Series, on Ai Weiwei and Chinese Indie Filmmaking

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

This October the Jacob Burns Film Center presents “Hidden China,” a monthlong series of independent documentaries produced in China, selected Zhu Rikun, producer, programmer and founder of Fanhall Studio. Zhu Rikun is a major figure in contemporary Chinese independent film, having produced such acclaimed films as Karamay and Winter Vacation. Earlier in 2012 he served as an advisor on “Hidden Histories,” a series of Chinese independent documentaries co-curated by Gertjan Zuilhof and Gerwin Tamsma for the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The centerpiece of the series was a retrospective of the documentaries of Ai Weiwei. Many of those selections are included in the “Hidden China” series at the Jacob Burns Film Center.

dGenerate Films’ Kevin B. Lee recorded this interview with Zhu Rikun during the Rotterdam series, focusing on the significance of Ai Weiwei as a documentary filmmaker and how they reflect developments in documentary filmmaking, citizen journalism and freedom of information and expression in today’s China.

Interview transcribed by Stephanie Hsu.

Kevin Lee: Looking at Ai Weiwei and his films, it seems he’s made films in two different Chinas. We look at a movie like Fairytale or Ordos 100—these are documentaries about how the Chinese art world is one of unlimited money and prestige. It’s a world the ruling powers approve of, because they think it will help elevate China in the eyes of the world. And so they work with Ai Weiwei as a famous artist to help promote that view. At the same time, he makes these highly socially critical films, like Disturbing the Peace and One Recluse. How do you see the connection between these two different kinds of movies that he makes? Do you think they are all basically the same kind of film or are they very different?


Monthlong “Hidden China” Series at Jacob Burns Center Starts October 4

Monday, October 1st, 2012

Curated by Zhu Rikun, a major figure in China’s independent film world, this is a very special look at a group of uncompromising movies that reveal a China we might not otherwise see. Zhu, filmmaker Wang Wo, and other members of the Chinese independent film world will join us for screenings and discussion. Presented in collaboration with dGenerate Films. Full schedule after the break.

Producer Zhu Rikun and filmmaker Wang Wo, both natives of China, are the two newest international fellows to take up residence at Jacob Burns Film Center (JBFC) this October, coinciding with our “Hidden China” film series. Zhu Rikun is one of the best known figures in Chinese independent cinema. In 2001 he founded Fanhall Studio, a production and distribution company whose goal was to stimulate the development of independent Chinese cinema. He produced many of the hardest-hitting Chinese films in recent years, including such major works as Xu Xin’s Karamay and Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation. Mr. Zhu was the organizer of the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the Songzhuang Documentary Film Festival, both of which helped flourish Chinese independent film. Wang Wo is a filmmaker and artist, and a teacher at the Li Xianting Film School, the first independent film school in China. Mr. Zhu and Mr. Wang will be at JBFC throughout the month of October.


Meishi Street Reviewed in Senses of Cinema

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

In the online journal Senses of Cinema, Luke Robinson reviews the documentary Meishi Street (directed by Ou Ning) which will screen this weekend at the Melbourne International Film Festival, as part of “Street Level Visions“, a series of contemporary Chinese independent documentaries.

Meishi Street shows ordinary Beijing citizens taking a stand against the planned destruction of their homes for the 2008 Olympics. An excerpt from Robinson’s review:


Beijing Besieged by Waste Reviewed in Senses of Cinema

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

In the online journal Senses of Cinema, Christen Cornell reviews the environmental documentary Beijing Besieged by Waste (directed by Wang Jiuliang) which will screen this weekend at the Melbourne International Film Festival, as part of “Street Level Visions“, a series of contemporary Chinese independent documentaries.

Excerpts from Cornell’s review:

Like many of China’s independent documentary films, the making of Beijing Besieged by Waste was itself a form of political activism, and in a country where such research can be dangerous. Wang used satellite images from Google Earth to look for signs of landfill sites, racked up 17000 kilometres on his motorbike following garbage trucks around Beijing, and kept a deliberate low-profile throughout his investigations. With each new discovery, Wang added a yellow dot to his map of Beijing and, in the end, had identified more than 460 landfills and tips situated around the outskirts of the city – a rim of consumer refuse surrounding this glittering international metropolis like a scum ring in a bath. Wang also lived on and off with the communities he was documenting, learning about their lives at ground level, interviewing them, and capturing their relationships on film.


Street Level Visions: Chinese Independent Docs at the Melbourne International Film Festival

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

“Though I Am Gone” (dir. HU Jie)

We’re proud to announce that “Street Level Visions,” a program of independent Chinese documentaries curated by Dan Edwards, will be screening next month as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

The program is a small retrospective of independent works produced in China over the past decade, many of which are distributed by dGenerate. The selection includes key landmarks of Chinese documentary such as Zhao Liang’s Petition (2009) and Hu Jie’s Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul, as well as new and important fare such as Wang Jiuliang’s debut from last year, Beijing Besieged by Waste.

Directors Ou Ning and Wang Jiuliang will be in Melbourne as guests of the festival.

Full program after the break – all screenings at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) on Federation Square unless otherwise indicated:

Old Dog a Hit at Brooklyn Film Festival; Screens Next Week at Northside Festival

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Indiewire lends a double dose of coverage to Pema Tseden’s Old Dog on its New York festival premiere at the Brooklyn Film Festival. The film screens in New York City again next Monday June 18 at the Northside Festival in Brooklyn.

In his review of the film, Indiewire critic Christopher Bell gives the film an “A” rating, declaring it “a true gem and the mark of an especially skilled director.”


Weekly Events: The Transition Period in NYC; Old Dog in Seattle

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Friday, May 18th, 2012

The Transition Period (dir. Zhou Hao)

The Transition Period at Museum of Chinese in America


Weekly Events: Oxhide II in Minneapolis, Old Dog at SFIFF

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Monday, April 16th at 7:00p.m., 9:30p.m.
Tuesday, April 17th at 7:00p.m., 9:30p.m.

"Oxhide II" (dir. Liu Jiayin)

Oxhide II at The Trylon, Minneapolis